Recently I have been making efforts to take longer views of history, to understand how things that happened and developed a long time ago still impact the world today. Sometimes this is easy to do. In a city, infrastructure decisions are evaluated and planned with 30 or more years of useful life intended for the investment. A building, bridge, or park is expected to stick around for a while, shaping its immediately area for a long time (or possibly forever if we chose to maintain the infrastructure indefinitely).
What is harder to see is how cultural products, as opposed to physical infrastructure products, stick around and continue to shape the culture and development of human social worlds. We are used to thinking of humans as individual actors who have the power to change and adapt to any given situation. We don’t think about how specific cultural arrangements could influence people for the long term. But the reality is that cultural interactions, products, and institutions can have a dramatic long term impact on people, just as a park or bridge can have a long term impact on a city.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker discusses how lower-income African Americans ended up with higher rates of violence due to poor policing. These higher rates of violence translated into discriminatory practices that have lasted for a long time, and are still with us today. It is easy to think that any black person in the US today can simply chose to be different, to ignore the long influence of history, but that is to ignore the real social institutions that shaped how African Americans understood themselves in our nation. Just as it would be foolish to ignore the impact that a park had in making a city an enjoyable place to live, ignoring the discrimination that African Americans faced and the subsequent violence that grew within African American communities would be foolish.
Pinker writes, “communities of lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a culture of honor (sometimes called the code of the streets) to defend their interests rather than calling in the law.” When government discriminated against black people, when the police were not a reliable and trustworthy source of justice, when black people had to defend their own honor or risk being taken advantage of, violence became a solution. By segregating black people, denying them access to quality services, and by racially profiling communities of color in policing, a stateless people were created within our country. The law did not afford equal protections and the state did not provide the same opportunities and engagement for black people relative to white people. This created situations in which violence flourished, furthering the very systems of inequality and injustice that created the situations for violence in the first place.
This history is long. It is not something that can be understood simply by looking at the violence that exists in African American communities today. To understand how we ended up with Black Lives Matter, to understand why rates of violence in communities of color are what they are, and to understand racial tensions, we have to take a long view of history. We have to acknowledge that cultural factors can have long-term impacts and consequences, just as infrastructure decisions can. Discrimination created a stateless people within the United States, and that statelessness incentivized violence. None of this is a matter of individual moral failings, but a consequence of decades of institutional and governance failings.